On Saturday I stood for 15 minutes chatting to Massimo Cellino as Leeds United played out their friendly against Dundee United.
It’s a while since I spoke to him last and that conversation is probably the best gauge I have for how this season is going to go. Through the summer I’ve held the same concerns as anyone else – the strength of the squad, the quality of the players we’ve brought in and the likelihood of everything coming together after so much upheaval.
Put everything together and it’s easy to be sceptical about the year in front of us. From the outside it must look like chaos. But I came away from my discussion with Massimo feeling more confident and optimistic than I had before.
I’m not saying for one minute that Leeds are heading for promotion this season. You hope for the best and I generally feel that a club like Leeds should be up there challenging but I expect us to look for stability before we look for the Premier League. We were a club in total freefall six months ago and that doesn’t turnaround overnight.
But a few things strike me about our owner. Firstly, you can’t question his commitment in any way. It’s very obvious to detect. He’s put millions of pounds into the club but in my eyes that’s only the start of it. He’s bought a house in Leeds and he’s moving from Miami. His family are coming here too. You simply wouldn’t allow that amount of upheaval if you were planning to own the club for as short a time as GFH did.
Secondly, he really does know his football. We spoke on Saturday about where the team needs strengthening and where it’s not quite right and his thinking was basically the same as mine. There’s no question that central defenders are wanted and it’s good to see us in for Frederick Sorensen, the young centre-back from Juventus. Another midfielder with a bit more quality than some of those we’ve got already would also be an advantage. And I still maintain that our squad would be more balanced and more dangerous with a natural wide player in it.
But that said, over time we’ve put a decent squad together. It’s not perfect and I don’t really expect this group of players to go up but it’s been built patiently and most of our signings have been made for the long-term. That’s encouraging because if one thing more than anything else has killed us in the past few years it’s been the attempt to magic promotion overnight.
I really don’t get the feeling that Leeds have panicked at any stage in the transfer market. Some deals have taken a bit of time to complete but have crossed the line in the end. In other cases, the club seemed to decide that enough was enough and gave up on those targets. There’s obviously been a clear picture of which positions needed to be filled and who was going to fill them. And the fact that I know very little about the lads coming in excites me. It makes you hope for the best.
If you ask me what I’m hoping for in the next nine months, I’d be quite happy with some proper progress. I feel like a stuck record because I said exactly the same last summer but if promotion isn’t feasible – and it’s asking a bit of a miracle in my opinion – then you want to see the ground being prepared for a future challenge.
There were certain success stories last season – Alex Mowatt, Matt Smith for example – but too many problems and too many players who lost their way. No doubt it was a tough environment at Elland Road and the atmosphere seemed to get to the team but when the summer came we were left with a side which basically needed ripping apart. That can’t be the case every 12 months. You’ll never go anywhere.
This time around I want to see a philosophy and a plan which sticks. I want to see young players – and the new signings in particular – grow into the shirts and prove that they’re good enough for the top end of the Championship. Basically, if we’re not going up then I’d like to see a situation next summer where we need two or three new signings, rather than 10. The reality in the Championship is that a few quality players can make a massive difference to an average team. That’s why Leeds are the Championship’s surprise package – if the likes of Sorensen, Tommaso Bianchi and Souleymane Doukara prove to be a cut above, it might just be that we’re closer to the business end of the Championship than people reckon we will be.
As for the head coach, David Hockaday, I wish him well. He’s under a lot of scrutiny, as coaches and managers always are, but this is a big opportunity for him and he must be desperate to rise to it.
Football management is a weird world – the most unsafe job going. I’ve never really understood why anyone wants to do it. With a few exceptions, you never get the chance to see a job through and a manager’s fate is always inevitable. I’ve seen a lot of friends go into management full of optimism but come out of it with a sour taste in their mouths.
Millwall away on Saturday is a hell of a start and we’ll see soon enough how Hockaday fares. But we all owe it to him to give him a chance.
You hear the same refrain whenever a new Championship season starts – the leading candidates for promotion will be the sides who’ve come down from the Premier League.
It makes sense when you think about it but I’m not sure that prediction is based on fact. I’d like to see the percentage of teams who’ve been relegated one year and promoted the next. Something tells me it won’t be too high.
Those clubs will always be prominent, and that really goes without saying because they drop into the Championship with massive parachute payments, but my tip for the title this season is a squad who were on fire for most of last season – Derby County.
Considering their form under Steve McClaren, pictured left, they really deserved to go up. They’ll look back on their play-off final defeat to QPR with a lot of regret. But when I watch Derby, I see a youthful side with masses of confidence and a real understanding of how to win matches and put runs together.
They played so well at times that you half expected their squad to get savaged this summer.
It surprises me a little that Premier League clubs didn’t step in to nick the likes of Craig Bryson, right, and Will Hughes, pictured far right. But those players have stuck around and they’ve got another year of Championship football under their belts. I can only see Derby getting stronger and stronger.
I make the point time and again that the bottom half of the Premier League is much the same standard as the top end of the Championship. Or to put it another way, a lot of the sides fighting relegation from the Premier League would not look massively out of place in the league below.
For that reason, I don’t think Fulham, Norwich City or Cardiff City are nailed-on certainties to go up. Of the three, Norwich probably impressed me most last season but losing Robert Snodgrass was a blow. We all know Snoddy well and he’s developing into an excellent player – the best of the bunch at Carrow Road last season. They’ve got enough to be a danger still but the division looks wide open to me.
As for Leeds, I’d like to think that we’ll be good enough to get into the top half of the table – because if you’re in the top half then you never know what might happen.
I certainly think that aiming much lower than 12th place would be unduly negative and I wouldn’t say that every club in the league has gone to town by improving their squad massively.
The Championship, traditionally, is a very level playing field but one which Leeds should be able to live with.
And I’m pretty sure we’ll do far better than a scrambled survival.